Kebe Dunn, wife of actor-comedian Michael Rapaport, hadn’t seen her husband cry in a decade. But in December, during his visit to Israel, the floodgates opened. It happened when he met 17-year-old Ofir Engel, who had returned from Hamas captivity. That meeting came after weeks of Rapaport trying to help Engel's family, and posting calls for his return. When the Jewish-American actor saw the boy standing before him, he couldn't hold back the tears. It wasn't the last time Rapaport cried during his visit. At his last Friday dinner in Israel, he told the team accompanying him how significant this trip had been for him, and the tears flowed.
Since the outbreak of the war, many prominent actors, businesspeople and influencers have arrived in Israel. Each has responded in the same way. "We’ve run out of tissues at our headquarters," says Dorit Gvili, director of the public relations campaign in Israel and globally for the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum, and COO of Publicis One Israel, which is working with the hostage families. "These are very, very difficult meetings. Jerry Seinfeld sat with the family and cried. Debra Messing cried. Everyone cries, because it's impossible not to cry. You can't listen to a mother who hasn’t known what has been happening to her son for 80 days, and remain indifferent. So, they -- and we -- fall apart together for five minutes, weep, and get back to normal."
"The phone is bursting with people who want to come to Israel"
The list of celebrities who have visited Israel in recent months is endless. Some are high-flying businesspeople such as Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and social network X; Ivanka Trump, daughter of former US President Donald Trump, and her husband Jared Kushner. A good number of actors and stars have also landed one after another: actor-comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his family, actor-comedian Michael Rapaport and his wife, actress Debra Messing, actor-creator James Maslow, actor-comedian Brett Gelman, and Australian actor Nathaniel Buzolic, star of "The Vampire Diaries". In addition, Scooter Braun, producer and manager of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, arrived in Israel, and Madonna's personal manager, Guy Oseary, was also spotted recently.
So how did Israel find itself as a magnet for influencers during a war? Some stars, like Jerry Seinfeld, came of their own accord, without anyone asking them to enter the "war zone". Others, including Ivanka Trump, arrived after talks with Israeli officials.
Jerry Seinfeld and his daughter in Israel from Instagram page
For example, it was former basketball star, Omri Casspi, who persuaded Musk to come to Israel. Casspi, who currently manages investment fund Sheva VC and leads tech company investments, hasn’t stopped at Musk, and is continuing his efforts to persuade senior businesspeople to come and show support for Israel.
Beyond the private initiatives, there are also Jewish organizations working to make sure that stars come to tell Israel’s story to the world. One is Jewish-American advocacy organization Maccabee Task Force (MTF) which, even before the war, was engaged in bringing influencers and celebrities to Israel to improve the country's image worldwide. Since October 7, however, the goal has changed.
"Before the war, we didn't really talk about political matters, and that was fine," says Uriel Dison, co-director (with Sarah Granof) of MTF’s media department. "Israel had terrible branding around the world, and was not perceived abroad as a country worth traveling to. We brought influencers here on visits to show the appropriate target audience there are things to do here, and that it’s fun. Really, that was enough for us before the war.
"But now we don't bring people to travel around. They have to come, and see with their own eyes, the results of the war, and become sort of wartime ambassadors. So, it wasn’t easy at first to bring them. There was a kind of dance -- 'Yes', 'Maybe', No', 'In a month' -- back and forth. They’d set a date and cancel it."
But the "dance" has become easier with every celebrity who sets foot in Israel. In the last two and a half months, Dison and his team have brought Rapaport, Maslow, Braun, Messing, Oscar-winning Israeli director Guy Nattiv, and journalist Eve Barlow. They also supported visits by Buzolic, Jewish-American rapper Kosha Dillz, British screenwriter-comedian Lee Kern, and many others.
"At first, it was hard to convince them to come, but now my phone is bursting with requests from people. Influencers connect us to other influencers, and celebrities to other celebrities, so it’s self-perpetuating," says Dison.
Rova Media is another company trying to tell Israel's story through influencers. Dan Luxenberg, who normally works as owner of media company SoulShop Studios, explains how it all started. "When the war broke out, we knew there would be two sides to the discourse. On the one hand, there would be the Israeli hasbara that wouldn’t convince anyone. And on the other side, there’s Al Jazeera, which is a Qatari-sponsored news organization, and they simply hate Israelis and Jews. Every story they tell will naturally be about this topic."
Given this understanding, Luxenberg decided, together with his partner, to present their point of view by producing story-telling content, and founded Rova Media. "We want to give people real insights into the survivors of the attack, or the hostage families, and also what the politicians think. We have influencers and public opinion makers who are standing in line to come to Israel. We haven't revealed the names yet, but there are journalists, social media influencers, artists and more".
What’s the cost of a celebrity visit to the Gaza border?
Beyond photos opportunities, celeb visits to Israel involve a great deal of logistics. Many of the celebrities stay in 5-star hotels, with some, such as Messing and Braun, even requesting stays at luxury Tel Aviv hotels like the David Kempinski and The Jaffa, where room rates start at about NIS 1,800 per night (and over NIS 10,000 for suites). In addition to lodging costs, the celebrities have security guards at their disposal, a VIP van with cushy seats, meals in restaurants, and their every request fulfilled immediately.
Have you received special requests?
"Some asked for healthy food, but in general they weren’t spoiled, and had no special requirements regarding food," says Dison. "We can sit with them for hummus or shawarma; we did that a lot with Michael Rapaport who rolled with it, and also ate bourekas and shakes with us on the road. We have the budget and the ability to take them to more expensive restaurants, too, but during a war, that's less of an issue. Sometimes, we just order them a Wolt [takeout] to their hotel".
How much does a visit to Israel like this cost?
"It is terribly complex to bring these people during a war, because they are worth a lot of money, and some insurance companies don’t want to insure them to come to a country at war. We pay for their flights, hotels, etc.
"Before the war, we spent about ten thousand dollars on average for an influencer trip, which is not much at all. We had lots of collaborations with hotels and airlines. Now, the cost is about $20,000 per influencer on average. El Al gave us discounts of 30%-40% on flights, and some hotels also gave us good, discounted deals. But flights are very expensive today, and only El Al flies business right now. Of course, there are celebrities whose visits are more expensive. For example, visits for Debra Messing, Scooter Braun, and Ari Dayan [musician and fiancée of Brett Gelman] were way beyond $50,000."
The organization, which is supported by donations, has brought a total of ten celebrities to Israel at a cost of about $200,000. "For the sake of comparison, before the war we brought about 100 people on trips over about two and a half years, and it cost us about $900,000", notes Dison.
Every celebrity comes with their own wish list
Besides pricier flights, celebrity visits to Israel entail a professional production team. "Before the war, I would bring one photographer to make all sorts of collages, something simple and lovely," explains Dison. "Because, in the end, what we were doing was branding Israel, and making it look beautiful and fun. We didn't have to explain the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Now, we are working on super complicated messages: wounded, kidnapped, army, conflict, Lebanon, Hamas. These are messages we must work on, to make sure that they reach the audience in the best way possible, through the influencer. This requires more significant editing. In addition, we need producers who can be in contact with the IDF spokesperson, and the security forces, to facilitate all our visits."
"We produce high-quality, premium content, and because we understand how the industry works, we have a good team that produces content on a low budget," Luxenberg explains. "In the end, the trip is not as expensive as people think it is, and the content is not as cheap as people think."
Among the producers busy with celebrity visits these days is Dafna Danenberg, owner of Eight Productions, which has been accompanying these visits to Israel since the outbreak of the war. Among others, she produced the visits of Nathanial Buzolic, Michael Rapaport, Debra Messing, Scooter Braun, James Maslow, and American actress-TikTok star Montana Tucker. "There’s a production team, a producer, and a content person, and I also accompany many of the tours personally. I was with Nate [Buzolic] for a whole month on all his tours. I left the house and moved to a hotel," explains Danenberg.
In fact, the entire visit passes through Danenberg’s desk. "We make sure to create content, schedule meetings, coordinate tours and interviews, bring photographers, and also sometimes do the video editing. We’re in contact with the IDF and the hostage families, and also with the president of Israel, and former prime minister Naftali Bennett. We simply produce the content together with the visiting celebrities, the whole goal being for them to come here, and be our ambassadors to the world."
Really, you’re a television production person. How did you get to this role?
"I view it as a mission. From day one, I've been solely committed to this war effort, and I try to tailor the visit that will best suit the visitors best, so that they can tell our story in the world."
As mentioned, this is a particularly complex tailoring job, as every celebrity has their own needs. For example, Ivanka Trump arrived for under a day and therefore decided to focus on visiting the Gaza Strip only, as part of a tour conducted together with Knesset Speaker, MK Amir Ohana. She told Ohana’s team it was important for her to hear the women's angle on the war, and they arranged a meeting with women officers from the Israel Police, and Israel Border Police who fought on October 7, as well as with female residents from the Gaza border area.
It was also important to actress Debra Messing to speak with women fighters, and hear about the rapes and atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on women during that day, and raise global awareness about the issue. In addition, as this was her first time in Israel, along with visiting Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Kibbutz Be’eri, Messing also requested a visit to Jerusalem.
Michael Rapaport's visit was different. "He wanted to see and experience everything, devour the entire country, right and wrong, north to south. He spoke to a million people on the street, spoke at the rally for the hostages, met countless families, countless wounded. He did everything, also walked the streets, and videoed himself just messing around", says Dison. Rapaport, on his first time to Israel as well, was supposed to stay only 6 days, but kept extending his trip, and finally left after 14 days.
Michael Rapaport with Shai Wenkert from Instagram pag
During his visit, Rapaport called his friend Jerry Seinfeld repeatedly, saying that, especially at this time, he had to come to Israel. "Originally, Jerry Seinfeld wasn't supposed to come," says Gvili of the Hostages Families Forum. "His team contacted us to coordinate meetings for his wife and daughter who were supposed to arrive without him, but at the last minute, we were informed he was coming, too. We quickly arranged the relevant meetings with his team."
Whom did he want to meet?
"It was important to him to meet with a family of hostages who had been released from captivity. And that's what we did, but we chose a family that still has a loved one in captivity. In addition, he also met a family with a hostage the same age as his daughter; something you can identify with, and be in that parent’s shoes. He asked a lot of questions, and emerged from those meetings very shaken. You don't have to be Jerry Seinfeld to be shocked when you hear their stories. Everyone leaves here shook up."
Walking through ruins - Lying on the ground
Beyond the important and moving videos resulting from these meetings, the visiting influencers and actors are forced to experience the unfiltered Israeli reality. This sometimes means stressful situations they have never encountered before. "They all experienced rocket sirens and running to shelters," Dison says. "On one occasion, when we were at the Gaza border with James Maslow, we had to run into a shelter after Maslow had heard quite a few stories about the horrible things that some of those murdered on October 7 went through in those shelters. So, it wasn’t easy for him, or for us, to hide there."
In another instance, while at Kfar Aza, there was not enough time to run to a shelter, and Maslow lay down on the ground along with everyone else, and watched the Iron Dome intercept the missile overhead. Another stressful moment for the actor came during a visit to the Gaza border, when in the middle of filming another post in support of Israel, an IDF officer approached, telling the crew to move quickly from where they were standing, because Hamas snipers had spotted them, and they were within range.
"It was a scary moment. Maslow was posting the video and while he was doing that, we could hear people in the background telling us we needed to move," says Dison. However, he says, most of the visiting celebrities are not surprised by these experiences: "They’re sure they’re coming to the battle between Gog and Magog, so that doesn't surprise them. They’re prepared for the worst. They’re more surprised that you can go out to a bar in Tel Aviv and have fun."
One of the most shocking experiences when visiting Israel is viewing 'the atrocity film' produced by the IDF Spokesperson's Unit of raw footage from the events of October 7. "Many of them specifically ask not to see the film of the horrors. Some of them couldn't take it," says Gvili. Debra Messing did not watch the film, nor did Scooter Braun. Rapaport, Maslow, and others did.
"They go through the entire range of emotions during their visit. They lie down on the road during rocket attacks, they visit hostages in the morning, cry, hearts broken, and at night they hang out in Tel Aviv," Danenberg says. "As a production, it’s important for us to give them the full sensory experience of Israel: the amazing food, and even some enjoyment. Tel Aviv is starting to come back to life a little; our hearts are torn all day long, so you need a bit of a break in the evening."
Hundreds of millions of views on social media
The public relations and economic significance of these visits to the State of Israel is clear. Every influencer and celebrity who arrives publishes dozens of posts a day from their tours, exposing the world to another story and another hostage family, and changing public opinion around the world. "On average, we bring people who have at least 3 million social media followers, and they do 110 posts during their trip," says Dison.
Before the war, visiting celebrities would sign a contract committing them to a certain minimum of social media posts per day, but this requirement naturally disappeared on October 7. "During the war, we don't ask them to sign anything, but it’s been very clear to everyone who’s come that they will post, we don’t even have to ask."
"If we take Elon Musk 's visit and his influence, it's clear that there’s something here that money can't buy," Gvili says. "He wears a [dog-tag] necklace he received from the father of a hostage, and wherever he is, it’s outside his shirt. If you compare this to the commercial world, no brand could buy this kind of publicity. Achieving this would have been impossible if he hadn’t visited Israel, if he hadn’t physically met the hostages."
Since his visit to Israel, posts by Stefan Tompson, owner of the Visegrad24 brand, which operates mainly on X, have had over 3 billion views. "It's crazy. Michael Rapaport reached hundreds of millions of views. Others also reached hundreds of millions, but Tompson’s exceptional. These are posts worth between 50 and 100 million dollars in the regular media. The IDF, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Stand With Israel pages have had about 200 million views since the beginning of the war," says Dison.
Dison says that, since visiting Israel, Tompson has been constantly thinking about how to keep leveraging his exposure to benefit Israel. "He’s coming back here next week and, with him, we’re going to produce 500 videos and content that show the face of Israel -- from soldiers, to Nova festival survivors, Holocaust survivors, hostage families -- nonstop videos that he’s going to blast. We hope these alone will reach between 200 million and 500 million views".
Influencers lose followers and money
While we in Israel may revel in the stardust left in their wake, some influencers pay an emotional, professional, and financial price for it. "Some of them have lost followers and also a lot of money," says Dison. "On October 8, after he uploaded a post in support of Israel, James Maslow lost more than 10,000 followers. Every time he spoke about Israel, he lost 5,000-6,000 followers, but when he arrived in Israel, he gained many Israeli and pro-Israeli followers who started following him."
And it's not just followers who leave. "A lot of these people have collaborations with companies to advertise their products at Christmas, and some of them told us they didn't get products to advertise this year, and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And that's just because they support Israel and make posts. Some said they couldn’t post anymore because their agents told them they wouldn’t be able to get them jobs because of it."
Despite all this, many celebrities and influencers are undeterred. "They are fully committed. Maslow writes to me every day that he wants to do more, speak on campuses, create content, come to Israel again, make a film. He really wants to focus on pro-Israeli content and fight antisemitism. Others are also continuing to post and raise awareness around the world about what happened here."
"The next generation of people with influence and power are not looking for money or glory. They want to make an impact. This is their time to stand up for what they believe in," Luxenberg explains. "Buzolic told me that there are 15.2 million Jews in the world and one of the reasons why antisemitism is so widespread is because most people have simply never met a Jew. His mission is to be our full partner, to introduce people to the Jewish and Israeli people, through his social media networks and distribution channels."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 15, 2024.
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